As Carolyn Nelka's expertly trained hands slide up and across her client's chest, then out toward both his shoulders, he grunts an audible release of tension.
The client, Jonathan Cox, is 4 months old, which is old enough to appreciate a good massage, if his coos, grunts and smiles are any indication.
His eyes turn from Ms. Nelka to his mother, Melinda Cox of Westminster, who is watching closely so she can duplicate the massage at home.
Ms. Cox is one of 21 students who just completed a course at Carroll Community College on caring for children with disabilities. The last class was on infant massage, which is beneficial to all babies, regardless of whether they have special needs, Ms. Nelka said.
"With any baby, it increases alertness and bonding," said Ms. Nelka, a massage practitioner at the Center for Healing Arts, 112 E. Main St., Westminster.
She said regular massage helps babies' motor skills develop faster and improves their circulation, cognition, digestion, bowel function and overall temperament.
"They're calmer," she said.
For babies with disabilities, training parents in massage has added benefits, she said.
"It can help the parents be more confident with their parenting skills," she said. The massage can also be a quiet, relaxed time for baby and parent to be alone together -- something that parents who are pressed for time don't always get, she said.
Although Jonathan and his older brothers are healthy and alert, Ms. Cox took the class because of a family history of disabilities, including cerebral palsy and mental handicaps.
It turned out that for the last session, the one on infant massage, she had to bring Jonathan with her because she didn't have a sitter.
After the initial demonstration by Ms. Nelka, other students prepared to practice on dolls. Ms. Cox simply undressed Jonathan and massaged him, eliciting giggles and coos of pleasure.
Most parents who come to Ms. Nelka to learn infant massage have babies with no disabilities, she said. She has taught infant massage in private sessions with parents, as well as in classes in the Baltimore area. She has offered to teach a course in the Carroll County Public Schools evening community classes, but not enough parents signed up, she said.
A private session for a parent to learn infant massage can range from $60 to $75, she said.
"The best time to learn is when the baby is between 3 weeks old to crawling," said Ms. Nelka. "You can modify it as they get older. They'll tell you [how they want to be massaged]."
Ms. Cox said her 2 1/2 -year-old son wouldn't sit still for a massage at first, but now likes "to have his legs done."
While showing Ms. Cox how to massage Jonathan, Ms. Nelka started with the baby's legs. Everyone was sitting on the floor in a room well-heated so that naked Jonathan wouldn't be cold.
He lay on his back on a baby blanket while Ms. Nelka rubbed a natural vegetable-based massage oil between her palms to warm it. She started by "asking the baby's permission."
She looked into Jonathan's eyes, and asked in a high-pitched, playful voice whether he wanted a massage. He didn't say no, so she started at the top of one chubby thigh, rubbing both her hands up toward his foot.
As she massaged his abdomen -- which can help relieve gas, she said -- she showed Ms. Cox how to do the three strokes and the words that go with each: "I - love - you."
After doing legs, arms, chest and face, she turned him across her lap, belly down, and stroked downward from his shoulders to his buttocks, while he looked alertly around the room.
"A parent does have an innate sense about touch," Ms. Nelka said, even without taking a massage course. "They may not know techniques, or specific strokes for relaxation, specific strokes for circulation, or specific strokes for helping to reduce colic and gas.
"But parents generally know how to touch babies, I think," she said.
She teaches parents the specifics, she said, and reinforces the importance of eye contact, a calm environment and understanding a baby's body language.
"Sometimes, when babies are tense, they will hold their legs stiff," she said. Also, she said, babies generally don't like to have their arms pulled away from their bodies.
"As they're massaged, they will loosen and relax," she said.
For the massage oil, Ms. Nelka recommends vegetable oils -- even the kind you put on a salad -- over commercial baby oils which often have petroleum products and fragrances in them, she said.
"The oil is absorbed into the skin, and the babies also put their hands in their mouths," she said. "You want it to be natural, because skin sensitivities develop at an early age."
The best time for a massage is just before a nap or bedtime, she said.
Anyone interested in learning infant massage may contact Ms. Nelka at the Center for Healing Arts, 848-9257.
She also recommended reading "Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents," by Vimala Schneider McClure, who developed the techniques in 1976, based on massage she saw in India.